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by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
Robert Ribbens has been producing Earth Fire Products’ miso since 1989 in a modest building behind Main Street in Gays Mills—the heart of Wisconsin’s proclaimed “apple capital.” Leaving behind a 19-year career with 3M, Robert bought Earth Fire Products and has continued to nurture this small, local business with assistance from a handful of his loyal yoga students. Robert’s long history with organic foods began back in the 1970s when he took part in the original Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA) which defined the country’s first organic standards, and it culminated in a signed document in 1985. Later, in 1994, the name of the organization was changed to Organic Trade Association, an organization most of us are still familiar with today.
Miso is a soybean paste that has been the mainstay of Japanese cooking for hundreds of years. It is a combination of soy, rice or other grains, salt and water that is blended into a paste-like brew and is fermented (aged) for as long as 18 months. The result is a thick, salty substance which contains natural carbohydrates, essential oils, minerals, vitamins, protein and essential amino acids. The fermentation of soy and other grains releases essential amino acids and vitamins that would otherwise be unavailable in their unfermented state. Because it is a “live” food and so much work goes into creating the rejuvenate mix, it’s critical not to boil or overheat the miso in order to retain all the intended nutritional effects.
Miso has many uses including providing seasoning to stews and soups and other dishes. It also has many varieties and is often classified by color (white, brown, red, yellow) and flavor (salty or sweet) and by the ingredients used. While a salty flavor predominates all types of miso, flavor varies depending on its color and the ingredients used to prepare it. For example, darker miso tends to taste saltier whereas white miso has a slightly sweeter flavor.
There are many suspected benefits of eating miso. They include cancer prevention, detoxification, anti-aging, digestive assistance, arteriosclerosis prevention, the potential control of blood pressure, a partial antidote to the effects of smoking, a hangover cure and the prevention of bone thinning.
Miso begins with the preparation of koji, which is rice inoculated with the aspergillus mold. The mold assists in breaking down the starch in the rice and creates glucose. The resulting live koji will later continue to secrete digestive enzymes and create protein in its path. After a lengthy process of incubating the rice and controlling the airflow around the grains, the finished koji is eventually blended with the cooked soybeans or grains and there begins the frenzy of fermentation between the rice and the aspergillus which eventually becomes finished miso.
Traditional farmhouse miso has historically been made using wooden racks to lay out piles of koji during the incubation period. Robert spoke about the difficulty in marrying the traditional methods with American standards of production. For instance, traditional methods of fermenting miso or preparing koji include the extensive use of wood, especially spruce, which contains natural antibiotic properties that discourages unwelcome bacteria while encouraging the good kind to flourish. In Wisconsin, however, state health code laws require all surfaces in the preparation and storage areas of a certified kitchen to be washable or able to be sanitized. Because of wood’s porous surface, it does not meet code standards, and, as a result, Earth Fire Products has, through trial and error, tailored their production methods to satisfy the health department.
Inside Earth Fire Products’ fermentation room, which is a temperature and humidity-controlled incubator for the miso, there are large, salt-lined barrels of miso waiting to be packaged. In one barrel is sweet, white miso, aged only four weeks; mellow miso in another barrel is aged six-to-eight weeks; and the long-term miso is aged between 16-18 months before packaging and distribution.
In order to make more constructive use of their facility, Robert added seitan to the Earth Fire Products’ line. In their steam-filled kitchen on Grove Street, Robert and his crew prepare and package seitan two-to-three times a month, but Robert says the miso-making remains a solitary practice. Unlike tofu which is soy-based, seitan is wheat-based but is also commonly used as an alternative protein because of its texture and the ability to introduce select spices during preparation in order to suit its final use.
Earth Fire Products begins with whole grain, organic wheat flour mixed with water and salt, turning a 40-pound bag of flour into 20-30 pounds of wet gluten. Robert has specially selected this flour blend over years of working with the same miller. Much like a baker, there is a critical need for consistency with the main ingredients and Robert sums up the two most important tenets of his production philosophy by listing, “choosing good quality materials and doing reasonable sized batches so you can pay attention to everything that’s happening.”
Initially, when water and salt are added to the flour in a five-gallon bucket, the combination is soaked, blended and rested before working out the bran and starch by hand, which draws out the essential glutens in the wheat. The resulting product, a loaf-like mass, is rested again. Eventually, each small batch is cut and hand-rolled by Robert and the crew into small seitan “nuggets.” Next, the nuggets are boiled then cooled in cold-water baths until they reach a temperature of about 45 degrees. Finally, the nuggets are packaged for retail sale.
The miso and seitan produced by Earth Fire Products do not require a full-time production schedule, however the kitchen in Gays Mills remains a resource for other small producers in need of certified kitchen space. Other local farms, like Future Fruits Farm who use the kitchen to produce, package and store their fruit butters and ciders, may only need the use of the kitchen seasonally, but the kitchen’s value as a resource remains priceless to small-scale local farmers.
For more information and to get some miso or seitan
For more information or to contact Earth Fire Products, please call them at (608) 735-4711. To taste some of their fabulous miso or seitan, grab some miso in the refrigerated section or some seitan in the frozen aisle of the Willy Street Co-op.